Builders’ clout cited as flood bills stall

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Sacramento Bee

When Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata shelved a package of bills touted as a way to reduce Central Valley flood risk, a well-heeled special interest could breathe a little easier this week.

The California Building Industry Association and other development interests had fought hard against Assembly Bill 1899, which became the lightning rod in Perata’s decision to kill the entire eight-bill package.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said the building industry has become increasingly powerful since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office.

“Let me put it this way: The governor is the tractor, and they’re working the gears,” Florez said. “And you can quote me.”

Perata, in explaining his decision to shelve the flood package, cited last-minute amendments by Schwarzenegger to AB 1899 that he said would weaken the bill, favored developers and were unacceptable.

“We’re not going to go through all this (wrangling) and not have a tough-enough law,” he said.

Rather than try to rush through negotiations before the Legislature adjourns next Thursday, Perata said it would be better to kill the entire package and start over when lawmakers return next year.

“I’ve been here long enough to know that we usually don’t do things well when we do things rushed,” Perata said.

AB 1899, by Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, proposes to increase flood-protection requirements for future subdivisions built on low-lying lands within the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds that could be subject to flooding of 3 feet or deeper.

John Frith, a spokesman for the California Building Industry Association, disagreed with Florez that the group exerts undue influence.

Frith said the CBIA is no different from many other associations — it actively participates in state politics, contributes to candidates it supports and tries to keep lawmakers informed about issues it considers key.

“While it’s nice to be singled out for having so much clout and influence, I’m sure the Governor’s Office would disagree with that. ‘ At the same time, we’re flattered that Sen. Florez thinks so highly of us,” he said.

The CBIA released a statement Wednesday professing its support for better flood protection, better public awareness of risk, improved levees and adequate land-use safeguards that don’t jeopardize the building industry.

AB 1899 was cited by the CBIA as legislation “disguised as flood protection” that would “simply shut down new construction.”

The CBIA also criticized a second bill, Assembly Bill 1528 — by Sacramento Democrat Dave Jones — that would require cities and counties to assume joint liability with the state for flooding that occurs in areas protected by new levee projects.

By shelving the eight-bill package, Perata not only cured a legislative headache, he pleased development interests that have been generous campaign contributors both to him and Schwarzenegger.

Perata’s campaign committee to support five bond measures on the Nov. 7 ballot has solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers or real-estate interests, while Schwarzenegger’s campaign committees have collected more than $5 million from developers over the past year, state records show.

Both Perata and Schwarzenegger said their actions on AB 1899, and other flood bills, were based on sound public policy — not special-interest clout.

“This had nothing to do with developers,” Perata said of his decision. But the industry “may well have been persuasive with the governor in trying to weaken the bill. ‘ And when we got those amendments, we just said they weren’t acceptable,” he said.

Darrell Ng, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, said campaign contributions were not a factor in crafting the controversial amendments.

“The governor always acts in the best interests of Californians,” Ng said.

Wolk, saying her goal is to resume negotiations and get her bill passed this year, declined to comment on the building industry’s Capitol clout.

Time is of the essence, she said.

“There are people in harm’s way,” Wolk said. “There are people at risk here.”

AB 1899 would require that future subdivisions of 25 units or more have 100-year flood protection — meaning that they would be considered safe in a massive storm with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year — and that a reasonable plan exists to upgrade to 200-year protection.

Schwarzenegger’s amendments would weaken the standards by allowing subdivision construction if a plan exists to provide 100-year protection within 10 years, and to upgrade to 200-year protection within 20 years. Those requirements could be waived if local governments agree to indemnify the state for flood damages.

While the building industry has been the driving force opposing AB 1899, other groups are opposed as well, including the California State Association of Counties, the Regional Council of Rural Counties and the California Chamber of Commerce.

By waiting until next year to tackle flood-control bills, Perata said, lawmakers would know whether voters approved a $4 billion flood-protection bond measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, said postponing action on the flood bills also would buy time for the state Department of Water Resources to complete a study on Delta flood-protection needs.

Nobody would be endangered by delaying action on the flood package, because none of the bills would improve levees immediately, Perata said.

“So I don’t think there’s any harm in waiting to see what happens (with the bond),” Perata said.
About the writer: The Bee’s Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or [email protected] Alan LaGuardia of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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